In Praise of Hands

Honor the simple craftsman, for it is he, not the modern artist or designer, who provides the continuity between past and present. The simple object made to be used, admired, and fingerprinted by all who touch it helps teach us to “mistrust the mirages of history and the illusions of the future.” So says a distinguished poet in this piece of homage to the contemporary craftsmen and craftswomen of the world.

Firmly planted. Not fallen from on high: sprung up from below. Ocher, the color of burnt honey. The color of a sun buried a thousand years ago and dug up only yesterday. Fresh green and orange stripes running across its still warm body. Circles, Greek frets: scattered traces of a lost alphabet? The belly of a woman heavy with child, the neck of a bird. If you cover and uncover its mouth with the palm of your hand, it answers you with a deep murmur, the sound of bubbling water welling up from its depths; if you tap its sides with your knuckles, it gives a tinkling laugh of little silver coins falling on stones. It has many tongues: it speaks the language of clay and minerals, of air currents flowing between canyon walls, of washerwomen as they scrub, of angry skies, of rain. A vessel of baked day: do not put it in a glass case alongside rare precious objects. It would look quite out of place. Its beauty is related to the liquid that it contains and to the thirst that it quenches. Its beauty is corporal: I see it, I touch it, I smell it, I hear it. If it is empty, it must be filled; if it is full, it must be emptied. I take it by the shaped handle as I would take a woman by the arm, I lift it up, I tip it over a pitcher into which I pour milk or pulque–lunar liquids that open and close the doors of dawn and dark, waking and sleeping. Not an object to contemplate: an object to use to satisfy someone’s thirst. A class jug. a wicker basket, a coarse muslin huipil, a wooden serving dish: beautiful objects, not despite their usefulness but because of it. Their beauty is simply a gratuitous gift, like the perfume and the color of flowers. It is inseparable from their function: they are beautiful things because they are useful things. Handcrafts belong to a world antedating the separation of the useful and the beautiful. Such a separation is more recent than is generally supposed. Many of the artifacts that find their way into our museums and private collections once belonged to that world in which beauty was not an isolated and autonomous value. Society was divided into two great realms, the profane and the sacred. In both, beauty was a subordinate quality: in the realm of the profane, it was dependent upon an object’s usefulness, and in the realm of the sacred it was dependent upon an object’s magic power. A utensil, a talisman, a symbol: beauty was the aura surrounding the object, the result–almost invariably an unintentional one-of the secret relation between its form and its meaning. Form: the way in which a thing is made; meaning: the purpose for which it is made. Today all these objects, forcibly uprooted from their historical context. their specific function, and their original meaning, standing there before us in their glass display eases, strike our eyes as enigmatic divinities and command our adoration. Their transfer from the cathedral, the palace, the nomad’s tent, the courtesan’s boudoir, and the witch’s cavern to the museum was a magico-religious transmutation. Objects became icons. This idolatry began in the Renaissance and from the seventeenth century onward has been one of the religions of the West (the other being politics). Long ago, at the height of the Baroque period. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz coined a witty little phrase poking fun at aestheties as superstitious awe: “A woman’s hand is white and beautiful because it is made of flesh and bone, not of marble or silver; I esteem it not because it is a thing of splendor but because its grasp is firm.”

The religion of art, like the religion of politics, sprang from the ruins of Christianity. Art inherited from the religion that had gone before, the power of consecrating things and imparting a sort of eternity to them: museums are our places of worship and the objects exhibited in them are beyond history; politics, or, to be more precise, revolution, meanwhile co-opted the other function of religion: changing man and society. Art was a spiritual heroism: revolution was the building of a universal church. The mission of the artist was to transmute the object; that of the revolutionary leader was to transform human nature. Picasso and Stalin. The process has been a twofold one: in the sphere of politics, ideas were converted into ideologies and ideologies into idolatries; art objects in turn were made idols, and these idols transformed into ideas. We gaze upon works of art with the same reverent awe–though with fewer spiritual rewards–with which the sage of antiquity contemplated the starry sky above: like celestial bodies, these paintings and sculptures are pure ideas. The religion of art is a neo-Platonism that dares not confess its name– when it is not a holy war against heretics and infidels. The history of modern art may be divided into two currents: the contemplative and the combative. Such schools as Cubism and Abstract Expressionism belong to the former; Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism belong to the latter. Mystic devotions on the one hand, crusades on the other.

To the ancients, the movement of the sun and stars was the image of perfection: to see the celestial harmony was to hear it, and to hear it was to understand it. This religious and philosophical vision reappears in our conception of art. To us, paintings and sculptures are not ugly or beautiful things but intellectual and perceptual entities, spiritual realities, forms in which ideas make themselves manifest. Before the aesthetic revolution, the value of works of art pointed to another value. That value was the interconnection between beauty and meaning: art objects were perceptual forms that in turn were signs. The meaning of a work was multiple, but all its meanings had to do with an ultimate signifier, in which meaning and being fused in an indissoluble central node: the godhead. The modern transposition: for us the artistic object is an autonomous, self-sufficient reality, and its ultimate meaning does not lie beyond the work but within it, in and of itself. It is a meaning beyond meaning: it refers to nothing whatever outside of itself. Like the Christian divinity, Jackson Pollock’s paintings do not mean: they are.

in modern works of art, meaning dissolves into the sheer emanation of being. The act of seeing is transformed into an intellectual process that is also a magic rite: to see is to understand, and to understand is to partake of the sacrament of communion. And along with the godhead and the true believers are the theologians: art critics. Their elaborate interpretations are no less abstruse than those of medieval Scholastics and Byzantine scholars. though far less rigorously argued. The questions that Origen, Albertus Magnus, Abelard, and Saint Thomas Aquinas gravely pondered reappear in the quibbles of our art critics, though tricked out this time in fancy masquerade costumes or reduced to mere platitudes. The parallel can be extended even further: in the religion of art, we find not only divinities and their attributes and theologians who explicate them but martyrs as well. In the twentieth century we have seen the Soviet state persecute poets and artists as mercilessly as the Dominicans extirpated the Albigensian heresy in the thirteenth.

Not unexpectedly, the exaltation and sanctification of the work of art has led to periodic rebellions and profanations–snatching the fetish from its niche, daubing it with paint, pinning a donkey’s ears and tail on it and parading it through the streets, dragging it in the mud, pinching it and proving that it is stuffed with sawdust, that it is nothing and no one and has no meaning at all–and then placing it back on its throne. The Dadaist Richard Hülsenbeck once exclaimed in a moment of exasperation: “Art should get a sound thrashing.” He was right–except that the welts left on the body of the Dadaist object by this scourging were like military decorations on the chests of generals: they simply enhanced its respectability. Our museums are full to bursting with anti-works of art and works of anti-art. The religion of art has been more astute than Rome: it has assimilated every schism that came along.

I do not deny that the contemplation of three sardines on a plate or of one triangle and one rectangle can enrich us spiritually; I merely maintain that the repetition of this act soon degenerates into a boring ritual. For that very reason, the Futurists, confronted with the neo-Platonism of the Cubists, urged a return to art with a message. The Futurists’ reaction was a healthy one, but at the same time an ingenuous one. Being more perspicacious, the Surrealists insisted that the work of art should say something. Since they realized that reducing the work of art to its content or its message would be a stupid mistake, they resorted to a notion that Freud had made common currency: that of latent content. What the work of art says is not to be found in its manifest content, but rather in what is behind the forms, the colors, the words. This was a way of loosening the theological knot binding being and meaning together without undoing it altogether, so as to preserve, to the maximum extent possible, the ambiguous relation between the two terms.

The most radical of the Surrealists was Marcel Duchamp: the work of art passes by way of the senses but its real goal lies farther on. It is not a thing: it is a fan of signs that as it opens and closes alternately reveals its meaning to us and conceals it from us. The work of art is an intelligible signal beamed back and forth between meaning and nonmeaning. The danger of this approach–a danger that Duchamp always (or nearly always) managed to avoid–is that it may lead too far in the opposite direction, leaving the artist with the concept and without the art, with the trouvaille and without the thing. This is the fate that has befallen Duchamp’s imitators. It should also be said that frequently they are left both without the art and without the concept. It scarcely bears repeating that art is not a concept: art is a thing of the senses. Speculation centered on a pseudoconcept is even more boring than contemplation of a still life. The modern religion of art continually circles back upon itself without ever finding the path to salvation: it keeps shifting back and forth from the negation of meaning for the sake of the object to the negation of the object for the sake of meaning.

The industrial revolution was the other side of the coin of the artistic revolution. The ever-increasing production of ever-more-perfect, identical objects was the precise counterpart of the consecration of the work of art as a unique object. As our museums became crowded with art objects, our houses became filled with ingenious gadgets: precise, obedient, mute, anonymous instruments. But it would be wrong to call them ugly. In the early days of the industrial revolution, aesthetic considerations scarcely played any role at all in the production of useful objects; the “artistic” element, generally borrowed from the academic art of the period, is simply “added onto” the object properly speaking. But industrial design consistently lagged behind the art of the period, and imitated artistic styles only after they had lost their initial freshness and were about to become aesthetic clichés.

Modern design has taken other paths–its own characteristic ones–in its search for a compromise between usefulness and aesthetics. At times it has achieved a successful compromise, but the result has been paradoxical. The aesthetic ideal of functional art is to increase the usefulness of the object in direct proportion to the amount by which its materiality can be decreased. The simplification of forms and the way in which they function becomes the formula: the maximum efficiency is to be achieved by the minimum of presence. The ideal of modern design is invisibility; the less visible functional objects are, the more beautiful they are. The precise opposite is true of craftwork: a physical presence which enters us by way of the senses. and in which the principle of maximum utility is continually violated in favor of tradition, imagination, and even sheer caprice. The beauty of industrial design is conceptual in nature: if it expresses anything at all, it is the accuracy of a formula. It is the sign of a function. Its rationality confines it to one and only one alternative: either an object will work or it won’t. In the second case it must be thrown into the trash barrel.

There comes a moment, however, when the industrial object finally turns into a presence with an aesthetic value: when it becomes useless. It is then transformed into a symbol or an emblem. The locomotive that Whitman sings of is a machine that has stopped running and no longer propels trainloads of passengers or freight: it is a motionless monument to speed. Whitman’s disciples–Valery Larbaud and the Italian Futurists–were sent into ecstasies by the beauty of locomotives and railroad tracks at precisely the time when other means of transportation–the airplane, the automobile–were beginning to replace the train. The locomotives of these poets are the equivalent of the fake ruins of the eighteenth century: they complement the landscape.

This affection for machines and contraptions that have fallen into disuse is not simply another proof of the incurable nostalgia that man feels for the past. It also reveals a blind spot in the modern sensibility: our inability to interrelate beauty and usefulness. Two things stand in our way: the religion of art forbids us to regard the useful as beautiful; the worship of usefulness leads us to conceive of beauty not as a presence but as a function. This may well be the reason for the extraordinary poverty of technology as a source of myths: aviation is the realization of an age-old dream that appears in every society, yet it has failed to create figures comparable to Icarus and Phaeton.

The industrial object tends to disappear as a form and to become indistinguishable from its function. Its being is its meaning and its meaning is to be useful. It is the diametrical opposite of the work of art. Craftwork is a mediation between these two poles: its forms are governed by the principle not of efficiency but of pleasure, which is always wasteful, and for which no rules exist. The industrial object allows the superfluous no place; craftwork delights in pure decoration. Its predilection for ornamentation is a violation of the principle of efficiency. The decorative patterns of the handcrafted object generally have no function whatsoever; hence they are ruthlessly eliminated by the industrial designer. The persistence and the proliferation of purely decorative motifs in craftwork reveal to us an intermediate zone between usefulness and aesthetic contemplation. In the work of handcraftsmen there is a constant shifting back and forth between usefulness and beauty. This continual interchange has a name: pleasure. The pleasure that craftwork gives us is a twofold transgression: against the cult of usefulness and against the cult of art.

USEFUL BEAUTY

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Since it is a thing made by human hands, the craft object preserves the fingerprints–be they real or metaphorical of the artisan who fashioned it. These imprints are not the signature of the artist; they are not a name. Nor are they a trademark. Rather, they are a sign: the scarcely visible, faded scar commemorating the original brotherhood of men and their separation. Being made by human hands, the craft object is made for human hands: we can not only see it but caress it with our fingers. We look at the work of art but we do not touch it. The religious taboo that forbids us to touch the statues of saints on an altar— “You‘ll burn your hands if you touch the Holy Tabernacle,” we were told as children also applies to paintings and sculptures. Our relation to the industrial object is functional; to the work of art, semireligious; to the handcrafted object, corporal. The transpersonal nature of craftwork is expressed, directly and immediately, in sensation: the body is participation. To feel is first of all to be aware of something or someone not ourselves. And above all else: to feel with someone. To be able to feel itself, the body searches for another body. We feel through others. The physical, bodily ties that bind us to others are no less strong than the legal, economic, and religious ties that unite us. The handmade object is a sign that expresses human society in a way all its own; not as work (technology), not as symbol (art, religion), but as a mutually shared physical life.

The pitcher of water or wine in the center of the table is a point of confluence, a little sun that makes all those gathered together one. But this pitcher that serves to quench the thirst of all of us can also be transformed into a flower vase by my wife. A personal sensibility and fantasy divert the object from its usual function and shift its meaning: it is no longer a vessel used for containing a liquid but one for displaying a carnation. A diversion and a shift that connect the object with another region of human sensibility: imagination.

This imagination is social: the carnation in the pitcher is also a metaphorical sun shared with everyone. In its continual oscillation between beauty and usefulness, pleasure and practical function, the handcrafted object teaches us lessons in sociability. In fiestas and celebrations its social radiation is even more intense and all-embracing. In the fiesta a collectivity partakes of communion with itself and this communion takes place by way of ritual objects that almost invariably are handcrafted objects. If the fiesta is shared participation in primordial time the collectivity literally shares among its members, like bread that has been blessed, the date being commemorated–handcraftsmanship is a sort of fiesta of the object: it transforms the everyday utensil into a sign of participation.

In bygone days, the artist was eager to be like his masters, to be worthy of them through his careful imitation of them. The modern artist wants to be different, and his homage to tradition takes the form of denying it. If he seeks a tradition, he searches for one somewhere outside the West, in the art of primitive peoples or in that of other civilizations. Because they are negations of the Western tradition, the archaic quality of primitive craftsmanship or the antiquity of the Sumerian or Mayan object are, paradoxically, forms of novelty. The frenetic search for change also governs industrial production, though for different reasons: each new object, the result of a new process, drives off’ the market the object that has immediately preceded it. The history of craftwork. however, is not a succession of new inventions or of unique (or supposedly unique) new objects. In point of fact, craftwork has no history, if we view history as an uninterrupted series of changes. There is no sharp break, but rather continuity, between its past and its present. The modern artist has set out to conquer eternity, and the designer to conquer the future; the craftsman allows himself to be conquered by time. Traditional yet not historical, intimately linked to the past but not precisely datable, the handcrafted object teaches us to mistrust the mirages of history and the illusions of the future. The craftsman does not seek to win a victory over time, but to become one with its flow.

Industrial design tends to be impersonal. It is subservient to the tyranny of function and its beauty lies in this subservience. But only in geometry is functional beauty completely realized, and only in this realm are truth and beauty one and the same thing; in the arts properly speaking, beauty is born of a necessary violation of norms. Beauty–or better put, art–is a violation of functionality. The sum total of these transgressions constitutes what we call a style. If he followed his own logical principles to the limit, the designer’s ideal would be the absence of any style whatsoever: forms reduced to their function, as the artist‘s style would be one that began and ended in each of his works. The difficulty is that no work of art is its own beginning and its own end. Each is a language at once personal and collective: a style, a manner, Craftwork, once again, lies squarely between these two poles: like industrial design, it is anonymous; like the work of art, it is a style. By comparison with industrial designs, however, the handcrafted object is anonymous but not impersonal; by comparison with the work of art, it emphasizes the collective nature of style and demonstrates to us that the prideful I of the artist is a we.

Technology is international. Its achievements, its methods, and its products are the same in every corner of the globe. By suppressing national and regional particularities and peculiarities, it has impoverished the world. Having spread from one end of the earth to the other, technology has become the most powerful agent of historical entropy. Its negative consequences can be summed up in one succinct phrase: it imposes uniformity without furthering unity. It levels the differences between distinctive national cultures and styles, but it fails to eradicate the rivalries and hatreds between peoples and states. After turning rivals into identical twins, it purveys the very same weapons to both. What is more, the danger of technology lies not only in the death-dealing power of many of its inventions but in the fact that it constitutes a grave threat to the very essence of the historical process. By doing away with the diversity of societies and cultures, it does away with history itself. The marvelous variety of different societies is the real creator of history: encounters and conjunctions of dissimilar groups and cultures with widely divergent techniques and ideas. The historical process is undoubtedly analogous to the twofold phenomenon that geneticists call inbreeding and outbreeding, and anthropologists endogamy and exogamy. The great world civilizations have been syntheses of different and diametrically opposed cultures. When a civilization has not been exposed to the threat and the stimulus of another civilization–as was the case with pre-Columbian America down to the sixteenth century–it is fated to mark time and wander round and round in circles. The experience of the Other is the secret of change. And of life as well.

Modern technology has brought about numerous and profound transformations. All of them, however, have had the same goal and the same import: the extirpation of the Other. By leaving the aggressive drives of humans intact and reducing all mankind to uniformity, it has strengthened the forces working toward the extinction of humanity. Craftwork, by contrast, is not even national; it is local. Indifferent to boundaries and systems of government, it has survived both republics and empires: the art of making the pottery, the woven baskets, and the musical instruments depicted in the frescoes of Bonampak has survived Mayan high priests, Aztec warriors, Spanish friars, and Mexican presidents. These arts will also survive Yankee tourists. Craftsmen have no fatherland: their real roots are in their native village or within their own families. Craftsmen defend us from the artificial uniformity of technology and its geometrical wastelands: by preserving differences, they preserve the fecundity of history.

The craftsman is not faithful to an idea, nor yet to an image, but to a practical discipline: his craft. His workshop is a social microcosm governed by its own special laws. He rarely works all by himself, nor is his work as monotonous and inordinately specialized as that on assembly lines in factories. His workday is not rigidly laid out for him by a time clock, but by a rhythm that has more to do with the body and its sensitivities than with the abstract necessities of production. As he works, he can talk with others and may even burst into song. It is revealing to note that despite its markedly collectivist nature, the craftsman’s workshop has never served as a model for any of the great utopias of the West. From Tommaso Campanella’s Civitas Solis to Charles Fourier‘s phalansteries and on down to the communist collectives of the industrial era, the prototypes of the perfect social man have never been craftsmen but priestsages and gardener-philosophers and the universal worker in whom daily praxis and scientific knowledge are conjoined. I am naturally not maintaining that craftsmen’s workshops are the very image of perfection. But their imperfection is that of men, not of systems. Because of its physical size and the number of people constituting it. a community of craftsmen favors democratic ways of living together; its organization is a hierarchy based not on power but on degrees of skill: masters, journeymen, apprentices. Finally, craftwork is labor that leaves room both for carefree diversion and for creativity. After having taught us a lesson in sensibility and the free play of the imagination, craftwork also teaches us a lesson in social organization.

Until only a few years ago, it was generally thought that handcrafts were doomed to disappear and be replaced by industrial production. Today however, precisely the contrary is occurring: handmade artifacts are now playing an appreciable role in world trade. Handcrafted objects from Afghanistan and Sudan are being sold in the same department stores as the latest products from Italian or Japanese factories. This rebirth is particularly noticeable in the highly industrialized countries, affecting producer and consumer alike. Where industrial concentration is heaviest–as in Massachusetts, for instance–we are witnessing the resurrection of such time-hallowed trades as pottery-making, carpentry, glass-blowing. Many young people of both sexes who are fed up with and disgusted by modern society have returned to craftwork. And even in the less highly developed countries possessed by the fanatical (and untimely) desire to become industrialized as rapidly as possible, handcraft traditions have undergone a great revival recently. In many of these countries, the government itself is actively encouraging handcraft production. This phenomenon is somewhat disturbing, since bureaucracies are the natural enemy of the craftsman, and each time that they attempt to “guide” him, they corrupt his sensibility, mutilate his imagination. and debase his handiwork.

The return to hand craftsmanship in the United States and in Western Europe is one of the symptoms of the great change that is taking place in our contemporary sensibility. We are confronting in this case yet another expression of the rebellion against the abstract religion of progress and the quantitative vision of man and nature. Admittedly, in order to feel painfully disillusioned by progress, people must first have undergone the experience of progress. And how can anyone fail to see where the faith in limitless progress has led? Our ruins are beginning to overshadow our constructions and are threatening to bury us alive. Hence the popularity of handcrafts is a sign of health—like the return to Thoreau and Blake, or the rediscovery of Fourier. Our senses, our instincts, our imagination always range far ahead of our reason. The critique of our civilization began with the Romantic poets, just as the industrial era was dawning. The poetry of the twentieth century carried on the Romantic revolt and rooted it even more deeply, but only recently has this spiritual rebellion penetrated the minds and hearts of the vast majority of people. Modern society is beginning to question the principles that served as its cornerstone two centuries ago, and is searching for other paths.

The destiny of the work of art is the air-conditioned eternity of the museum; the destiny of the industrial object is the trash barrel. The hand-crafted object ordinarily escapes the museum and its glass display cases, and when it does happen to end up in one, it acquits itself honorably. But it has neither the desire to last for thousands upon thousands of years, nor is it possessed by a frantic drive to die an early death. Between the timeless time of the museum and the speeded-up time of technology, craftsmanship is the hear-theat of human time. A thing that is handmade is a useful object but also one that is beautiful; an object that lasts a long time but also one that slowly ages away and is resigned to so doing; an object that is not unique like the work of art and can be replaced by another object that is similar but not identical. The craftsman‘s handiwork teaches us to die and hence teaches us to live. □

–Translated from the Spanish by Helen R. Lane